Windmills of the Monastery of St.John the Theologian,

Daphne Becket


Windmills of the Monastery of St John the Theologian

Becket Architects Fokilidou 24 Athens 106-73 Greece

Patmos, Greece
EU Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award 2012 winner - Conservation


Restoring three windmills: built heritage and spiritual heritage

 



The Monastery''s three windmills sit atop a hill in the UNESCO world heritage town of Chora on Patmos, one of Europe''s most important historical and religious pilgrimage sites. Two of the windmills were built in 1588, the third in 1863. When stoneground flour production ceased in the 1950s, the windmills were abandoned and fell into disrepair, as did most of the wind and watermills in Europe.

Our project aimed not only at restoring the windmills to their original appearance and design, but also making them productive again by reinstating their traditional use in one mill and adapting the other two to new uses. It sought to open the windmills to the public as a living museum, thereby recapturing and applying lost knowledge that would delight and educate both islanders and visitors alike. The project has resulted in a revitalized, working and aesthetically beautiful heritage site, marrying tradition and modernity.

The first phase of the restoration completed in 2010 aimed at restoring the building themselves and enabling the sails to be unfurled and turned in the wind. The first mill had a milling mechanism installed, faithful to traditional designs and able to produce stone ground flour. For the second and third mills we invented a modern speed control system which was successfully installed and allows the sails to turn in the wind in safety.

We are currently starting phase two of the project which moves beyond the purely museological and aesthetic uses of these popular heritage buildings. This phase aims at implementing new means of production in these three beautifully restored, fully functioning and environmentally friendly windmills; one producing flour, another electricity and the last, water.

The inspiration and majority funding for the first phase of this project came from a Swiss Banker, Mr Charles Pictet whose family has had close ties with Greece over several generations. A passionate sailor he wished to thank Greece for many wonderful times had sailing its waters. The windmills were chosen, so honoring the God of the winds.  The rest of the funding was secured from Greek anonymous donors and the Stavros Niarchos foundations. For phase two, funds are limited by teh Greek financial crisis, so it is moving very slowly.

When we started working on this project and gathered our team, we had little idea how much of an exploration and adventure it would turn out to be. Nobody in teh team knew how to build a windmill, even less how to use one. The key decision made at the very beginning and which set the tone for all our work was to not do any ls"fake old'. An identical copy of the past is simply no longer feasible, we do not have their tools and techniques and they did not have ours. We remained faithful to the ideas and principles that inspired and guided the windmill builders over the centuries and we interpreted them in our terms. Although we had made a number of construction drawings, in the end they were hardly consulted and every element was composed full scale in the wood workshop, through trial and error, full scale. We wanted to restore not only the appearance of the windmills, but also bring their ls"soul' back to life, make them dynamic and alive, and this meant the rediscovery of the art of the miller, the millstone maker and the windmill builder.

Popular Architecture of which these windmills are a part is formed slowly over the centuries. In the case of the windmills, miller after miller contributed to the development of the building type. Each a little different, each with that particular miller's trademark. Very similar to popular traditional music where a song is repeated again and again but reinterpreted by each musician, giving it his personal tone. It is a world where individuals are anonymous but their collective work creates our precious popular cultural heritage. Following in their footsteps, with respect, we used our modern means and tools to recreate our windmills, resulting in very efficient and elegant machines that remain faithful to the spirit of the original. 

The preservation of our cultural heritage must reach beyond the restoration of the building shell and include the preservation or revival of traditional professions, popular trades and know-how. To restore a windmill without a miller is like owning a car but not knowing how to drive it. In Patmos this restoration is intended as a catalyst for the resurrection not only of the milling profession but also of a chain of production starting with the farmers and ending with the bakers, for the sacred metamorphosis of grains into bread.